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Lost in Cyberspace

Online games playable, imaginative – and small

This article was originally published on July 28, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

Maybe it's because I'm long in the tooth, but I kind of ache for the old days of computer gaming – the days when a Commodore 64 or Apple ][ with 48K of RAM was more than enough to run the hottest new titles. Games like "Choplifter," "Frogger" or "Hardball."

Even in the early '90s, when '386s were top of the line, games rarely exceeded the weird 640k RAM limit imposed by DOS. And there were some good games with good graphics – "Prince of Persia," "Stunt Driver" and the gutterish "Leisure Suit Larry."

But of late, games have become grotesque memory hogs. New levels for "Quake II," for instance, can run up to 40 megs each. Two new add-ons for "Total Annhilation" both demand 100 megs of your hard drive. Microsoft's "Monster Truck Madness" wants 200 megs, and "Unreal" needs 350 megs for a full install!

And more and more games are needing 32, even 64 megs of RAM to run with full graphics and sound.

All of which is enough to make one wonder if programmers can still write elegant little games – games with bright graphics and good playability that take up less than a meg or so. Whatever happened to "Commander Keen" anyway? Or "Pac*Man," for that matter.

The good news is that there are plenty of tightly written games that take up little space, and you can find them on the Web.

In fact, you can play them on the Web.

Taking online interactivity to new levels, game programmers are using Shockwave from Macromedia (publishers of "Director," an editor for Shockwave) to create some pretty nifty games you can run in the Shockwave plug-in of your browser. And, since the game itself has to be downloaded to your computer's memory, they're under great pressure to keep them small – few are more than a meg. High score lists and/or prize entries are still handled via modem, but otherwise you're self-contained once you download the game (however, on the down side you cannot save the game to your hard drive – you need to re-load it from the site each time you want to play).

The slickest of the online game sites is probably Candystand (which even touts itself as "the best free Shockwave gaming site on the Internet"). The Candystand Arcade – run by the Lifesavers candy company – has a dozen or so games up and running at any time; the games change fairly often, too, keeping the site (and challenges) fresh.

Most of the games at Candystand, especially the better ones, are from Skyworks Technologies. You can play baseball ("Home Run Rally," 750K), football ("Morten Andersen Field Goal Challenge," 580K), hockey, basketball, miniature golf, and skeeball ("Roll-A-Ball" just 203K),. They're small, tightly written and charming little games that entertain quickly and without pretense.

The mini golf, for instance, features nine different holes (each of 250k), and can have up to four players. (Oh, and wipe that smirk off your face – the mini golf is a toughie; I shot 80 on the par 27 course first time through. Subsequent playing makes it easier, but it's tough enough to stay challenging. Although, to be fair, maybe I'm just lousy. At least three people – kids, I'm assuming – shot 13s!)

And for the Xers among you, check out the extreme sports games: "Skate Rage" (downhill inline skating, 767K), snowboarding, inline slalom and hang gliding.

Quite a few of these games have contests associated with getting a high score; parents who don't want their yung'uns giving out their e-mail address should check out the privacy statement linked off each game.

Another site with a ton of online games is at the Shockwave home site, Shockrave. There are sports, arcade, action, gambling simulations and others. The games on this site change much more often than those on Candystand – visit yourself to see what's up (although they also keep some older games up in their archive section).

The best of these games are every bit as good as most shareware arcade games you will find – and, in fact, evoke the silly fun of the old classic 8-bit games kids played on their Commodores and Ataris back in the early '80s. (In fact, one of the companies making online games for Shockwave, Broderbund – creator of "Mudball Wall" on Shockrave – is a veteran of the early days of 8-bit gaming, and created some of the best games for the Atari and Commodore machines, like "Karateka.")

While most folks won't care, the purists among us – folks who hate Bill Gates not for his massive bank account but for his massive operating system – will not only enjoy the Shockwave games, but they'll find a certain aesthetic grace in the fact that the programmers can entertain without kidnapping your entire hard drive.